Post-apocalyptic fiction follows the fortunes of characters as they try to cope in a post-apocalyptic world. Sounds deceptively simple, but there’s a lot more to life after the apocalypse than meets the eye.
The apocalypse doesn’t only refer to the end of the world. My trusty Chambers Dictionary app tells me that the word itself is derived from the Greek apokalypsis – an uncovering.
Post-apocalyptic fiction is set some time after the end of civilisation and the return to a less technologically advanced state.
Books in this genre often remind me of post-colonial literature set in societies rent asunder by their colonisers. But in this post I’ll focus on the very essence of post-apocalyptic fiction: the fact that things aren’t what they used to be. Exactly how bad they get is up to you, the writer.
Post-apocalyptic fiction is not the same as dystopian fiction
To be honest, some books widely classified as post-apocalyptic fiction could easily be shifted to the dystopian shelf. A good example of such blurred lines is John Wyndham’s classic The Chrysalids. Yes, it’s definitely set some generations after civilisation entered a dark age, but the main theme is of a young man waking up to the realisation that he lives in a dystopia.
It’s easy to confuse the two genres because many fictional dystopias were established in the wake of apocalyptic collapse. So how do you tell them apart?
- Dystopian fiction tends to pit the individual against the normative forces of society, whereas …
- … post-apocalyptic fiction is a matter of the individual struggling for survival, or maybe even trying to rebuild civilisation.
Different kinds of apocalypse
Depending on whether they’re tragedies or not, post-apocalyptic stories can end with the hope of new beginnings for humankind. Tales of purifying the earth through destruction abound in the bible, one important reference source for writers in this genre.
But they begin with the apocalyptic event itself, or, as it has been called elsewhere, a Big Bang. In the most powerful post-apocalyptic works, subsequent events are related to the nature of the Big Bang, whether they unfold in the immediate aftermath or generations later.
Post-apocalyptic fiction has a number of notable recurring themes when it comes to the event that kicks them off. The following sources of devastation have all found their way into popular books:
1. Events from outer space
In John Wyndham’s more firmly post-apocalyptic novel The Day of the Triffids, civilisation ends when a strange, beautiful meteor shower blinds all who see it (which is pretty much everybody, owing to the aforementioned strangeness and beauty).
2. Unknown and strange causes
The Devil’s Children by Peter Dickinson depicts a world where humans have been driven by a mysterious sound to destroy all technology. But readers of Cormac McCarthy’s ultra-bleak masterpiece The Road never do learn what calamity befell the earth.
3. Epidemics and maladies
Characters in José Saramago’s Nobel Prize-winning novel Blindness suffer from the same ailment as those in The Day of the Triffids. But this time the disability spreads quietly, unheralded by heavenly fireworks. The source of devastation in MR Carey’s The Girl with All the Gifts is more the stuff of horror: a fungal infection which turns humans into ‘hungries’.
4. Environmental catastrophe
A new ice age is the chilly, post-apocalyptic setting for Michael Moorcock’s The Ice Schooner, a Moby-Dick reboot. For PD James, the apocalypse is more of a whimper than a bang. In The Children of Men, society disintegrates after the human race loses the ability to reproduce, possibly a subtle case of Gaia’s revenge.
It’s hardly surprising that in the later part of the twentieth century, nuclear war was a much written-about cause of the apocalypse. As a young adult I was affected by Raymond Briggs’ graphic novel When the Wind Blows, the story of an ordinary suburban couple’s fight for survival after a nuclear attack.
On a more fantastical note, Mortal Engines by Philip Reeve proves that apocalypse by war needn’t be a drawn-out affair. The world of this book is a place ravaged by the ‘Sixty-Minute War’ and its aftermath.
You’d think there’d be a sufficiency of novels where the apocalypse is caused by magic, wouldn’t you? But there don’t seem to be, possibly because it’s such a tricky scenario to develop.
One magical apocalypse I particularly enjoyed takes place in Elegy Beach by Steven R Boyett, ushering in a world where the laws of magic replace the laws of physics.
Post-apocalyptic fiction – the world is yours to destroy
Post-apocalyptic fiction is a highly fertile genre for authors of speculative fiction. To get started, you need a Big (or Little) Bang, and main characters who may (or may not) embody the new future of civilisation.
The rest is up for grabs. Whether you opt for a conventional or experimental structure, or a tragic or more optimistic ending, your novel will find worthy shelf-fellows in the speculative fiction section of any bookshop.